Mike the Mad Biologist

With the uprising in Iran using Twitter, there’s been a lot of Twitter triumphalism running amok hither and yon through the intertubez. Tom Watson has a very nice takedown, but there are two other themes worth discussing: the conduit by itself isn’t revolutionary; and, a medium with 140 characters shreds the culture of political literacy required to overturn existing political orders.

Stirling Newberry observes:

Twitter is a pager for the Web 2.0, and useful in the same way that pagers are. By the same measure, pagers are only as useful as the people on the ends. They do not add to the conversation. The real revolutionary tools of this moment are much less heralded: smartphones and proxies. It was the smartphones that had the cameras that made instant documentation possible – Tweets don’t even have pictures – and the opening of proxies and the “small pieces loosely joined” ethos that David Weinberger, author of the “cluetrain manifesto” put forward. To the extent that Twitter helped create those far loose joins, it was able to rapidly color the internet green….

The real power from Iran has been the stomach wrenching pictures, and the people who have gone into the jaws of danger to extract them…. Twitter’s joining could have been accomplished by other tools. People often talk about talking, without realizing that talking itself is not a substitute for action.

But glorification of a pager system is far less troublesome than what the ‘Twitterization’ of politics means for our political language. Driftglass, describing a conference he attended, explains the political limitations of the medium (boldface drifty’s; italics mine):

For fun, I checked out the row where I was sitting. Based on my unscientific survey, in that row at any given time during the 3.5 hour conference, seven out of nine people were busy texting/surfing/twittering. Not briefly or glancingly, but fairly steadily….

…there was something half-ominous/ half -funny about being in an auditorium with people who had given up the better part of a beautiful Saturday to discuss the Very Important subject of the future of the fourth estate…an amazingly high percentage of whom were clearly unable to pay patient attention to what was happening right in front of them for more than a few minutes at a stretch.

From entertainification, to the price of paper, to the collapse of ad revenue, to an unsustainable, debt-based business model, there are certainly a lot of knife wounds in journalism’s gut, but one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is this: the radical narrowing, shortening and dumbing-down of the apertures through which knowledge itself passes.

….consider the Twitter-max of 140 characters, you get cut off before the end first sentence of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (a speech in which he assures his audience that he’s going to keep it short)…

…whatever else it [Twitter] is, it isn’t listening, and in that just-in-time, bullet-point, “gimme the elevator version”-saturated world, the first casualty of narrative is context.

And of shorn context, “news” ceases to “the voice of the voiceless”, “the information you need as a citizen in a democracy” or even “what happened” and becomes mere noise.

I would take it further: Twitter-style communication inhibits the ability to create an oppositional subculture, and then to (successfully) communicate the values of that subculture to a larger group. To do that, you need discussion, thoroughness, and context. 140 characters won’t do that.

After all, the Republicans have embraced Twitter, and, as far as I can tell, it’s done very little other than alert the rest of us to daily GOP bigot eruptions (the ongoing revelation of the GOP id is useful for the Coalition of the Sane, but definitely not intended by those tweeting).

To put this another way, one can tweet the phrase “I have a dream”, but not the “I Have a Dream” speech–and it’s the whole speech that matters.

Comments

  1. #1 Joshua
    June 24, 2009

    But, hey, at least it’s giving the Anti-Kitten Burning Coalition a new way to feel better about themselves. Oh, you disapprove of oppressive dictatorships? What a novel idea! I never thought that somebody might take a dim view of that sort of thing, but I guess it’s a widespread opinion.

    So, yeah. That’s out there. What are you going to do about it? Make your avatar green? I bet Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are quaking in their friggin’ boots.

    Obviously, it’s not the impotence of the medium that’s the problem. Lots of things are incapable of overthrowing oppressive dictatorships and forcibly installing stable, West-friendly democracies, up to and including direct military intervention and years of costly occupation. So, Twitter doesn’t have to feel too bad about not being able to achieve that sort of thing. No, the problem is the illusion of making some kind of difference. Because it isn’t. No Iranian police officer is going to check Twitter, see all the green avatars, and decide, “Hey, maybe I shouldn’t shoot anybody today.” It’s not going to happen, but everybody is pretending like it will.

    The illusion of control and influence it gives is very dangerous indeed. We change our avatar green, then sit back in smug self-righteousness for having “done something” to help the Iranian protesters. Well, no, you haven’t done anything to help. At least, not anything more than the people who condemn kitten burning have ever done to stop psychopaths from setting kittens on fire.

    And that’s fine. You don’t have to change the world from the comfort of your couch. Nobody expects you to. But I wish everybody would stop pretending that they can, because it’s a foolish and dangerous delusion.

  2. #2 Ross
    June 24, 2009

    Seems like this is only true if you think of Twitter as a strictly one-way mechanism for “getting your message out”. It’s not. If the goal is dialog, surely there can be some advantage found in a system which disallows *monologue*. While twitter may be the enemy of thoroughness, can’t we gain something from the fact that we have a system in place where you don’t get to say more than 140 characters *before someone else gets to respond*? The one thing that twitter is the great enemy of is a form of rhetoric where you “win” debates by just talking around in circles without saying anything until the audience forgets what the question was in the first place.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    June 24, 2009

    It was the smartphones that had the cameras that made instant documentation possible – Tweets don’t even have pictures

    Twitpic?

    Lots of things are incapable of overthrowing oppressive dictatorships and forcibly installing stable, West-friendly democracies, up to and including direct military intervention and years of costly occupation. So, Twitter doesn’t have to feel too bad about not being able to achieve that sort of thing. No, the problem is the illusion of making some kind of difference.

    Well said.

  4. #4 Paul Murray
    June 25, 2009

    The illusion of control and influence it gives is very dangerous indeed.

    First thing I though of when I read “Iranian election” and “twitter triumphalism” together was: “Yeah! Tweet it! That’ll show ‘em! That’ll keep the police from breaking your door down and clubbing you!”

    When the rules break down, only action matters.

  5. #5 Misaki
    July 3, 2011

    The demand for modes of communication such as Twitter are due to the common lack of understanding by people of the limitations of systems with which they interact. Solution: http://pastebin.com/Q86Zhgs9